“It got taken out more when you’re missing home … when you’ve got that downtime and start thinking about what’s going on back home,” Pope said.
He kept his Bible in his room at the post, near his bed. His missions were dangerous, to be sure, working in reconnaissance and route security during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq.
“We rode the roads and got blown up and shot at a lot,” Pope said. “But that was not the problem. What would absolutely tear you up inside was being in a strange place under stressful conditions, and you just want to go home.”
On those nights, Pope turned to his Bible, the one his youth group back at Union Grove United Methodist Church on County Road 45 in Piedmont gave him before he left to serve.
Many dozen such soldiers’ Bibles were on display earlier this year at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York. From the Civil War to present day conflicts, the Bibles on display were visible proof of the importance of faith when men and women find themselves far from home.
In 1817, the American Bible Society distributed Bibles to the sailors on the USS John Adams. They still do so, and say they’ve given out nearly 60 million Bibles to U.S. armed forces since that first batch almost 300 years ago. The Society has given out more than 2 million New Testaments since the attacks of 9/11.
Bibles were as plentiful as sand in Iraq, Pope said. Churches would send them by the hundreds, and the government shipped them in, as well.
The same year that Pope entered Iraq, Army Pfc. Brendan Schweigart reported that his Bible saved his life when, after being shot by a sniper, the bullet lodged in the Bible, preventing it from bouncing off his bulletproof vest and reentering his chest.
Similar reports of Bibles saving soldiers’ lives go back to the 17th century, but any pastor would say that the real purpose of a Bible is to save lives in a different way. Pope, now working as an emergency medical technician in Gadsden, said that many of his fellow soldiers would faithfully read their Bibles each night.
“Guys got a lot of strength from it. The stress of being gone is a lot worse than the stress of what you’re doing there,” Pope said. “You do those things so you can come home.”
Boot camp with a Bible
On Monday, just before Cheryl Heard packed up her son Brady for his trip to Camp Pendleton in California for U.S. Marines Special Forces training, she snapped a photograph of the Bible, rosary and Catholic prayer book that he was taking with him.
There is much reason to worry with the world’s conflicts and the uncertainty of it all, Heard said. The military “wasn’t really what I had planned for Brady,” she added, but he’d dreamed of joining the Marines since he was a child.
When the former wrestler graduated from Oxford High in 2012 and decided to join the U.S. Marines, Heard, a nurse, and her husband, Donald, the fire chief at the Anniston Army Depot, could only be supportive of his choice.
“Our hearts have always been hearts of servants, because what we’re supposed to do as Christians is to serve others. So how could we argue with him when he came in and said, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to make people safe, and I want to make people proud by being the best person that I can be’?”
During boot camp just after high school graduation, Brady sent word home asking for his Bible, a special edition emblazoned with the Marine Corps seal in gold. Brady also asked for rosary beads and a Catholic prayer book. As a member of Trinity Baptist Church in Oxford, Heard said, she knew her son’s faith was grounded and that he was continuing to explore it in new ways.
“I am so proud of him, but I am even more so proud of him because of his religious foundation,” she said. “You worry about your kids when they leave home. Will they be safe? Will they continue doing what you taught them to do? And I could not be more proud than I am now.”
Heard mailed her son his Bible, rosaries and the small Catholic prayer book titled “Fulton Sheen’s Wartime Prayer Book.” During boot camp, the only downtime Brady had was a four-hour window on Sunday, Heard said, when the recruits had the option to attend a church service.
“So I was very proud that he chose to do that. He knew. If you’re not spiritually strong, physically you’re not either. That’s the foundation.” Heard said.
Heard got emotional when she spoke of packing up Brady on Monday — slipping in the Bible and the rosaries and the prayer book among his things — before he left once more for training.
“I told him how proud I was, and I always tell him I’m praying for him to be the best. And stay strong in his faith, and that’s what we talked about before he left,” Heard said.
Brady was in the air when he sent his mother a text message: “I love you mom with all my heart. I’ll be safe, don’t worry, and I’ll be home soon.”
“He is my strength,” Heard said. “I get my strength from him.”